A War and an Opportunity

Last March, I wrote this column to mark the 10th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom. One year later, Iraq is descending even further into violence. We cannot forget those who continue to suffer from the consequences of this war even after they have returned home.

A War and an Opportunity

Najaf, 2004.

Anxious in our dusty, wind-swept tents in the Kuwaiti desert, we knew the invasion would be hard. It was the early spring of 2003, and I remember well the afternoon we spent practicing dry runs with our atropine injectors in the meaty part of our thighs. To us, as to the world at the time, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were real, and we had to worry about how we would get the needles through the thick rubber of our chemical weapons suits when the inevitable clouds of nerve agent descended upon us south of Baghdad. That night, we searched for hours through a blinding sandstorm for a young Marine who had deliberately taken the medicine prematurely, trying to escape the battle that was to come.

But even in this frightful scene, mixed with our nervousness was a sense of opportunity. Most of us, like those iconic New York City firefighters rushing up the World Trade Center stairs, were ready and eager to fight, not just because we were brave or naive, but because we were honored to do our duty for our country. Sept. 11, 2001, rallied the nation together, but we were among the few the president called to action. We knew the eyes of the world were upon us, and we wanted to make them proud.

Many today deride the predictions that we would be greeted as liberators with flowers when we rolled into Baghdad, forgetting that, in fact, we were. I have never seen a more hopeful, optimistic and excited place on Earth than Iraq in the spring of 2003. The oppressed people of a regime we toppled shared America’s dream of freedom, and opportunity called them to a future brighter than they had ever known. But whatever we had going for us in those early days, we lost, through the age-old sins of arrogance, incompetence and refusing to admit the truth. And that’s what the world has known of our response to Sept. 11 ever since.

Ten years later, America feels divided and disillusioned, and as a veteran of the war that has come to define the tragedy of an era, it is hard to remember those heady days, after the attacks but before the war, when we shed the divisive legacy of our parents’ Vietnam-era politics and wanted to do something great, together. Iraq is not Vietnam, but in the same way that our misguided war in Southeast Asia sapped the energy and vitality of the early part of the 1960s, and left division and disillusion in their place, Iraq did the same for many in America today. While the partisan rancor that rings through the halls of Congress has many fathers in the challenges of the past 10 years, the Iraq War, and the bitterly emotional debates that ensued, planted the seeds of that undoing.

I returned to Iraq for three more tours after the invasion, and had the honor of serving in the Surge, when we owned up to many of our prior mistakes and tried to set things right. We re-entered the communities we had been afraid to know, we partnered with Iraqis we were wary to understand, and tens of thousands of brave young Americans — the best this country has to offer — put their lives on the line to turn a desperate situation back around. When I left Iraq for the last time in 2008, it was the first time I left the country better off than when I arrived. Opportunity shone once more.

Yet today, Iraq seems to be descending into chaos again, and most Americans want to forget it — the country, the war, and 
all the memories that have both animated and haunted us veterans ever since. For me, there is nothing that encapsulates both our misguided response to the attacks of Sept. 11, and the entire Iraq War itself, more than a sense of lost opportunity. Ten years ago, we had the chance, as a people united, to do something great. Many of us tried harder in Iraq than most will ever know, but America could have left a far-better legacy for its children from this past decade than we have.

The worst days of my life were in Iraq, and the best days were there, too. My fondest memories of the Iraq War are of the people — both Americans and Iraqis — and the opportunity we saw in one another, for our countries and for which we fought. As a veteran of the war, this is what I yearn for in my life and for my country once again, and it is what our nation’s leadership in Washington needs to restore — that sense of purpose and opportunity that blossomed from the ashes of a bright September morning, and that we few volunteers felt in the Kuwaiti desert one early spring, 10 years ago.

Originally published in the Salem News on March 26, 2013.